Is Robert K. Krick a Southern Historian?

Over the past three days I’ve come across two references that place Robert K. Krick, squarely in the camp of Southern historians.  The reference is meant not simply to denote field of interest but a “pro-South” or “pro-Confederate” bias.  As many of you know Krick worked for 31 years as the chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.  These claims are made with apparently no attempt at verification; it’s as if his body of scholarship speaks for itself in terms of his place of birth.  Of course, Krick is not native to the South; rather he was born and raised in California.  Before proceeding let’s be clear that Krick’s work on the Army of Northern Virginia is essential reading for any Civil War enthusiast.  In short, few people know more about Lee’s army than Krick.

If you are unfamiliar with his work I recommend the following titles:

This loose interpretation of Krick’s work suggests that one of the key differences within the Civil War community is not between folks who are supposedly “pro” or “anti” anything or who fall along different sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, but between competing ways of looking at the past.

A closer look not at Krick’s scholarship, but his public talks and more casual writings is instructive.  He has expressed grave concern over the expansion of battlefield interpretation at NPS battlefields.  Back in 2007 I took part in a Civil War symposium at the University of Virginia that included Krick.  As you can see in my report of that talk [and here], Krick tends to go after some of the same academic historians over and over such as William G. Piston, Thomas Connelly, and Michael Fellman, which suggests that his grasp of recent Civil War scholarship is shaky at best.  I was asked to respond to Krick and the other speakers, which you can read here.  Krick brushes off most modern scholarship concerning Lee and the rest of the Confederate pantheon as “psycho-babble” which is odd given the amount of time he spends assuming the motivation of academics.

If Krick is not a “Southern historian” in this parochial sense than what is he?  For an answer I would direct you to the latest issue of Southern Cultures, which includes an essay by Peter Carmichael, titled, “Truth is Mighty and Will Eventually Prevail: Political Correctness, Neo-Confederates, and Robert E. Lee” (Fall 2011).  I first heard Peter give this talk a few years ago in Lexington.  In it he argues that Krick and Fellman represent two different approaches to understanding the past.  Krick’s approach to the past reflects a Victorian perspective that assumes that the past is fixed and that moral lessons can clearly be discerned through, among other things, the study of biography.  Such a view explains Krick’s interest in Jackson and Lee and his disdain for those, who he believes constitute a threat to what he sees as the traditional interpretation.  According to Carmichael, Fellman’s biography of Lee represents a modernist turn that emphasizes complexity and revisionism in historical studies.  Such an analytical stance throws into question the possibility of gleaning moral lessons from the past.  Click here if you would like to read more of my summary of Carmichael’s talk, which should give you a good sense of what he does in his SC essay.

While I have some disagreements with Pete’s analysis it does offer us a way to move beyond the simplicity of the categories referenced at the beginning of this post.  In the end the description of Krick as a Southern historian really has nothing at all to do with his place of birth or anything to do with geography.  It’s about how one approaches the study of the past.

Print Friendly
 

24 thoughts on “Is Robert K. Krick a Southern Historian?

  1. Ray O'Hara

    Yes, anybody who thinks Stonehead’s demise doomed the CSA is a “Southern Historian”
    If anything it was Jackson’s slothful nonperfomance in the SevenDays that doomed the CSA as the first four days were the one chance the ANV had to destroy the AoP and Jackson was personally responsible for that not Happening.
    Where he was born matters little

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Don’t you think that this comment is just a tad bit overly simplistic? It doesn’t even reflect Krick’s view to any great extent.

      Reply
      1. Ray O'Hara

        I’ve read Krick and even seen him on TV
        and I stand by my comment, Jackson’s death had no effect on why the CSA lost.

        When he writes a book on the AoP get back to me.
        and you seem to be implying that being a “Southern Historian” means one is a biased historian. No one ever calls someone like Bruce Catton a Northern or Union Historian nor does Ed Bearss get so labled but they fit the bill.
        As long as they are fair its okay.
        Wiley Sword and D.S.Freeman are Southern Historians and they don’t disparage Yankees.

        I don’t consider the likes of DiLorenzo or the Kennedy Bros Southern Historians as they are not historians in the first place.

        Worst I’ve read for bias in Thomas L Connolly, in the two volume Army of the Tennessee history , specifically Vol 1 Army of the Heartland the worst case of lying with facts occurs.
        in the part about Stones River. Connolly gives the strength figures of Bragg as 39,000 and Rosecrans’s as 120,000. factually true but a lie never the less, it fails to mention 80,000 of Rosecrans’s army are REMFs who are his supply troops and LoC security troops and that the Armies that fought the battle were the most equal in strength in any major battle of the war.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Where does Krick makes such a strong statement re: Jackson and Confederate defeat? In the lead article in The Smoothbore Volley he says the following:

          “The effect of Jackson’s demise is incalculable, falling as it does into the realm of hypothesis.” p. 39
          “Nothing could have done more harm to the Army of Northern Virginia and to the nascent nation for which that army was the sturdiest underpinning” p. 41

          Why does he need to write a book on the Army of the Potomac? I don’t follow.
          My overall point in the post is that the label of “Southern historian” is often used in a way that blurs the distinction between place of birth and someone who is perceived as pro-South/Confederacy. In the case of Krick it seems to be used to refer to both, though as I note he was born and raised in California.

          Reply
          1. Ray O'Hara

            When someone say incalculable they don’t mean inderminate, it generally means of such a magnitude it is beyond comprehension and the second line shows that’s what he meant “Nothing could have done more harm to the Army of Northern Virginia and to the nascent nation” I’d say that backs me up.

            A book on the AoP or any book on the Yankee side would show him to be a generalist in regards to CW history. I have no problem with his CSA-O-Centric books , as you note it has given him great insight into the ANV, just as Sear’s fixation on Lil’Mac and Cozzen’s on Rosecrans., they are both “Northern Historians” but their books in no way disparage or slight the CSA.

            Place of birth has no bearing on his historical focus and that is as a CSA historian.
            So yes Krick is a CSA historian and no that is not a bad thing.

            It’s funny how things work. You moved to Mass and we accept you as now being a fellow “Masshole” but had you settled in Vermont or Maine and stayed there for the next 50 years you’d always be “from away” .NH is more like Mass in that regard.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              I agree. Krick is a historian of the Confederacy – more specifically, the Army of Northern Virginia. The content of his scholarship is marked by careful analysis and a desire to get at some notion of historical truth. The referencing of Krick as a Southern historian, in the context that I’ve described in the post, is something altogether different.

              Krick clearly believes that Jackson was an important member of the ANV and I would suggest that he makes a very good argument for it.

              Reply
              1. Ray O'Hara

                Jackson was an important member.
                But it is still a stretch to say his death was instrumental in losing the War.
                Which is what Krick seems to be implying.

                Do schools still teach kids about the triangular trade?, I learned that in grammar school , the local Catholic school. it wasn’t presented in an “omg this was an abomination” type of way, just as the way business was once conducted at that time. but we still learned about slave trading and molasses trading and it gave a foundation for later lessons on the CW and what it grew from.

                Reply
          2. Mike Musick

            Just to clarify a bit, RKK was born in New Jersey, and raised in Michigan and California – though of course this doesn’t alter the point of the post.

            Reply
  2. Leonard Lanier

    Krick’s behavior mimics the old adage that “no one is more zealous than a convert.” I attended a talk he gave at the VHS, available at http://vahistorical.org/news/lectures_krick.htm, which insinuated that historians looking at Civil War memory are fantastic conspiracy theorists, out to destroy the “sacred” memory of Lee, Jackson, and other major Confederate figures. He argued for people to take postwar writings at face value, although that is exactly NOT what Kirk himself did in his brilliant article on Jackson’s death written for “Smoothbore Volley.” I also heard that Kirk, in his later years at F&SNMP voiced strong objections to the renewed emphasis on war causation, especially slavery, by the Park Service, and his behavior contributed to an interpretive split among the park staff that I recognized during an internship there. While his articles and books suggestive a firm belief in scholarly integrity and methodology, his public statements and actions say otherwise.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      This notion of studying memory as a form of conspiracy theory is popular in certain circles, but I suspect that the attitude is a function of wanting to hold onto the idea of historical narrative as stable. His resistance did indeed cause a rift at FSNMP; in fact, there is an excellent MA thesis on the subject at UNC-Greensboro.

      Reply
      1. Eric Mink

        My curiosity is piqued. I worked at FRSP during this period and am interested in reading about this purported rift. Would you mind providing the title and author of the thesis?

        - Eric Mink

        Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              I will provide the reference to the thesis when I arrive home later today. You will have to request a copy from the university.

              Reply
  3. David Rhoads

    Krick’s defense of Lee and Jackson and his unrelenting animus toward Longstreet place him pretty squarely in the Lost Cause tradition. In regard to Longstreet in particular, Krick seems to allow what appears to be anger and contempt toward a historical figure to color his use of evidence and his analysis of that evidence. The two vitriolic essays about Longstreet and the review of Piston’s Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant in The Smoothbore Volley represent Krick’s scholarship at its worst. Perhaps this apparent emotional investment in the historical assessments of the Confederate high command is what makes him a Southern Historian in the eyes of modern pro-Confederate actors.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I agree that the review section of Smoothbore should never have been included, but I don’t know if I want to include Krick in that traditional Lost Cause camp. I attribute his anti-Longstreet streak to his emotional attachment to Jackson, which I still find a bit strange.

      Reply
      1. Ray O'Hara

        You can’t blame The Great Gray God, nor St Stonewall and the Western Armies might as well not exist as far as Lost Causer’s go. The Yankees were just chumps and greasy mechanics so the possibility they won is off the table, that leaves Old Pete to shoulder the blame for losing.

        and that terrible “troll on a pony” statue is worse than no statue at all.
        http://www.gettysburgdaily.com/?p=143
        and it’s being down the road a bit from the imo best CW statue the NC statue just makes it look worse.

        Reply
  4. Peter Carmichael

    Kevin:

    The piece in Southern Cultures was intended to broaden our approach to studying the past by focusing on how people thought and not just what they thought. ( I really don’t think there is much more than can be said about the substance of Lost Cause beliefs and how they evolved from Appomattox to today, and so the article avoids content issues that have largely been settled). The two lines of inquiry are closely related, but Robert Darton, in the Great Cat Massacre, suggests that there are ways of knowing that help us understand the intellectual dispositions of various people. His observations offer all kinds of exciting possibilities that enable us to find a degree of coherence and unity in the collective thinking of people without denying the diversity of beliefs. I think we both agree that the labels we toss around, especially neo-Confederate, are not especially useful as they have become so capacious and they reduce people to caricatures. I am struck by how the comments below continue to pivot around labels when we should be digging deeper to underlying ways of thought. If we want to get out of the historiographical ruts of the Lost Cause , we need new methodological approaches or I fear we will keep sparring using the same language, responding to the same questions, and going over the same tired material. And the discussion thread confirms my fears—we are arguing about whether Jackson’s death doomed the Confederacy and whether Krick is a Southern historian.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I think we pretty much agree, Pete. In fact, the point of the post was to suggest that these labels tell us very little that is helpful. I am trying to formulate a response for the blog, but it’s difficult given that your Southern Cultures essay is not available online.

      Reply
  5. Kevin Levin Post author

    Here is the reference to the thesis on the NPS at Fredericksburg:

    Elizabeth A. Getz. Looking to the High Ground: Historians at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Respond to FY-2000. A Master’s paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree, University of North Carolina Press at Chapel Hill, April 2003.

    Reply
  6. Bob Huddleston

    Some years ago we took a Civil War tour with Gary Gallagher and Krick. At lunch Krick commented that he worked for Lee and Stonewall — I was too polite to ask him who signed his paychecks.

    And as long as he was Chief Historian the sign on the Orange Turnpike telling about the First Corps’ attack was very well written and very clear, yet it somehow failed to mention the name of the Confederate commander.

    In fairness, Krick also put down any notion of Black Confederates, saying something to the effect that in all his years of study of the rank and file of the ANV, he had found perhaps a dozen who might have been African-American but he hated to mention it because people would start adding zeroes to his comment!

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Those two together is always a treat. The guy is a dynamite historian and he’s got an encyclopedic understanding of Confederate resources, which is why he knows the black Confederate narrative is absolute nonsense. He’s got a thing for Jackson and something against Longstreet, which I will probably never understand nor do I care to. His comments about academics tell us something important about how he views the study of history. I tend to think that he views his work as contributing to a knowable past that, apart from some of the details relating to insufficient sources, need not be revised.

      Reply
  7. Eric Wittenberg

    Bob himself once told me that he doesn’t know anything about “those Yankees” when I asked him about the charge of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry at Cedar Mountain. That ought to tell you something…..

    Reply

Join the Conversation